Tragic events in New Orleans have laid bare America's bigotry and exposed the lie of equal opportunity
Monday September 5, 2005
The Guardian , (London)
'Stuff happens," said the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, when called to respond to the looting taking place in Baghdad after the American invasion. "But in terms of what's going on in that country, it is a fundamental misunderstanding to see those images over and over and over again of some boy walking out with a vase and say, 'Oh, my goodness, you didn't have a plan' ... It's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here."
The official response to the looting in New Orleans last week was, however, quite different. The images were not of "newly liberated Iraqis" making away with precious artefacts, but desperate African-Americans in a devastated urban area, most of whom are making off with nappies, bottled water and food.
So these are not scenes of freedom at work but anarchy to be suppressed. "These troops are battle-tested. They have M-16s and are locked and loaded," said the Democrat governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and I expect they will."
Events on the Gulf coast following Hurricane Katrina have been a metaphor for race in the US. The predominantly black population of New Orleans, along with a sizeable number of poor whites, was left to sink or swim. The bulging banks of the Mississippi momentarily washed away the racial divisions that appeared so permanent, not in a common cause but a common condition - poverty.
Under-resourced and without support, those who remained afloat had to hustle to survive. The ad hoc means they created to defend and govern themselves under such extreme adversity were, inevitably, dysfunctional. Their plight was not understood as part of a broader, societal crisis but misunderstood as a problem apart from that crisis. Eviscerated from context, they could then be branded as a lawless, amoral and indigent bunch of people who can't get it together because they are in the grip of pathology.
Katrina did not create this racist image of African-Americans - it has simply laid bare its ahistorical bigotry, and in so doing exposed the lie of equal opportunity in the US. A basic understanding of human nature suggests everyone in New Orleans wanted to survive and escape. A basic understanding of American economics and history shows that, despite all the rhetoric, wealth - not hard work or personal sacrifice - is the most decisive factor in who succeeds.
In that sense, Katrina has been a disaster for the poor for the same reason that President Bush's social security proposals and economic policies have been. It was the result of small government - an inadequate, privatised response to a massive public problem. And if there was ever any bewilderment about why African-Americans reject such an agenda so comprehensively at every election, then this was why.
"No one would have checked on a lot of the black people in these parishes while the sun shined," Mayor Milton Tutwiler of Winstonville, Mississippi, told the New York Times. "So am I surprised that no one has come to help us now? No."
The fact that the vast majority of those who remained in town were black was not an accident. Katrina did not go out of its way to affect black people. It destroyed almost everything in its path. But the poor were disproportionately affected because they were least able to escape its path and to endure its wrath. They are more likely to have bad housing and less likely to have cars. Many had to work until the last moment and few have the money to pay for a hotel out of town.
Nature does not discriminate, but people do. For reasons that are particularly resonant in the south, where this year African-Americans celebrated the 40th anniversary of legislation protecting their right to vote, black people are disproportionately represented among the poor. Two-thirds of New Orleans is African-American, a quarter of whom live in poverty.
In the Lower Ninth Ward area, which was inundated by the floodwaters, more than 98% of the residents are black and more than a third live in poverty. In other words, their race and their class are so closely intertwined that to try to understand either separately is tantamount to misunderstanding both entirely.
"Negro poverty is not white poverty," explained President Lyndon Johnson in a speech to Howard University in 1965. "Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences - deep, corrosive, obstinate differences, radiating painful roots into the community and into the family and the nature of the individual. These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the negro they are a constant reminder of oppression."
Daily scenes of thousands of African-Americans being told to be patient even as they died; their children wailing as they stood stranded and dehydrated on highways; their old perishing as they festered in filthy homes full of faeces; their dead left to rot in the street - it was a reminder too many for some.
By Friday night, rapper Kanye West had finally had enough. On a live NBC television special to raise funds for the victims, he lashed out. "I've tried to turn away from the TV because it's too hard to watch," he said. "Bush doesn't care about black people. It's been five days [waiting for help] because most of the people are black. America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible."
While West's comments expressed a blatant truth for all with eyes to see, to some they were more outrageous than watching thousands of people dying live on television from neglect in the wealthiest country in the world. NBC made it clear he had stepped off the reservation. "Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's opinion."
The fact that this person's opinion, shared by so many, explains why those in need need so much help is, it seems, irrelevant. Perhaps NBC executives should have read that black radical magazine Time last week, where West graces the cover. The title? "Why you can't ignore Kanye; more GQ than gangsta, Kanye West is challenging the way rap thinks about race and class."